Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Coral Gardens 1963: The Rastafari and Jamaican Independence

Published April 12, 2013

It was fifty years ago April 11, 1963 when the Jamaican state used an altercation at Coral Gardens on the outskirts of Montego Bay, Jamaica to mount a violent campaign against the Rastafarian community in Western Jamaica. This events of April 21963 involved a group of Rastafarians and at the end of the incident, eight were killed and two policemen perished in the incident. The brethren had claimed freedom of movement for themselves and for other oppressed Jamaicans. They were being prevented from walking along the areas of the Coast close to the Half Moon Bay Hotel.  These areas were being segregated in order to make the Montego Bay area ready for international investments in tourism.

This writer vividly remembers that events of April 1963 because it was the same day we interred the remains of my younger sister who had joined the ancestors.  We lived in an area where we knew brothers and sisters. We also knew Rastas from the different working class communities across Montego Bay and its environs. That weekend is now known among freedom loving Caribbean persons as the weekend of Bad Friday. The continuities from that period of repression are to be found in many areas of the social life of Jamaica and the Caribbean. The children of the class forces that orchestrated that repression have now aligned with nationalists and even former Rastas who are the conduits for the exploitation of the people.

Since that era fifty years ago, the Jamaican society has seen the expansion of the movement of the Rastafari as well as the expansion of the repression and extrajudicial killing by the police and military forces. Most persons came to hear more about these forms of state violence against the people in 2010 when the police killed scores of persons in Western Kingston at Tivoli Gardens. This week we want to reflect on the Rastafari and their quest for freedom and emancipation and how the Coral Gardens uprising formed one link in the chain of the struggles for basic dignity in the Caribbean.  We will start with the context of Montego Bay and St. James at the period of independence in 1962 and examine the social relationships between the brethren and the dominant social elements who called on the police to keep the thoroughfare of Coral Gardens and Rose Hall free from the presence of bearded men walking through to Flower Hill and Salt springs. This violence that had been unleashed upon the poor is now like a plague to the society. Violence and repression of poor communities has reached the point where the Jamaican murder rate has become one of the highest in the world. At the same time, the number  of tourists travelling to Jamaica has set records. In the very year 2010 when the police killed over 70 persons in Tivoli gardens in western Kingston, there were more than 3 million visitors to Jamaica. This anomaly is one of the direct results of the segregation that had been effected in Jamaica after the round up of the Rastafari and the Coral Gardens uprisings. The spatial segregation and gated communities create the conditions of paradise for the rulers and international tourists and for the poor a space of violence, hunger and exploitation. It is the radical spirit  of the people manifest in every era that has kept the society as a sane space.

Coral Gardens: The setting
The peoples of Jamaica acceded to Independence on August 6, 1962. The people of St, James in the Western part of Jamaica as in all parts of the island society at that moment were searching for levers to break the power of the plantation owners. In 1962 the largest landowner was the Custos of St. James, Sir Francis Moncrieff Kerr-Jarrett. Francis Kerr-Jarrett (1886-1968), owner of numerous sugar plantations, had been among the most active of the planter class in Jamaica opposing Marcus Garvey in the twenties and thirties. Together with H.G. Delisser, from another planter family, these colonial operators had opposed Garveyism and the nationalist ideas of Jamaica. In the years prior independence, Francis Kerr-Jarrett had made numerous appeals to the governor of Jamaica, Hugh Foot and later Kenneth Blackburne to crack down of the growing Rastafari movement.

He continuously petitioned the Governor and the colonial office to clamp down on the Rastafari who he described as ‘an undesirable sect’ and that the governor should do everything to discourage their activities During the latter years of the fifties, Kerr Jarrett was behind one of the conservative movements to appear in Jamaica under the guise of Moral Rearmament. In the years 1951-1960 he was the principal patron of this conservative cold war pseudo-religious movement. Through the activism of Kerr Jarrett, the colonial special branch police had placed numerous Rastafari camps under surveillance and had used the Vagrancy laws of the period of enslavement against the camps of the Rastafari.

Barnett Estates was owned by the Kerr Jarrett family and dominated the economy of St James prior to the boom in tourism. The estates on the other side of the town in the Rose Hall and Flower Hill areas were being overtaken by the desire to turn the Rose Hall and Iron shore estates into a tourist resort. In 1954, a group of leading international capitalists had come together to claim a 400 acres hundred portion of land to establish the Half Moon Bay Hotel in the bay which was previously been the port for the offloading of Sugar for the Rose Hall estates. Among Half Moon’s original investors were: Donald Deskey of New York City’s famous Radio City Music Hall; Harvey Firestone, Jr. of the Firestone Tyre and Rubber company; Richard Reynolds of the Reynolds Metal Company and Jamaican bauxite company Reynolds Jamaica; oil and real estate magnate Curtis Steuart; as well as Mrs. Laurence Armour of US meat packaging giant Armour Packing Company.  It was the same Firestone family that had undermined the Garvey project of repatriation to Liberia.

The Rose Hall Plantation had been the scene of brutality for hundreds of years and H.G Delisser had written a novel celebrating one of the owners of that plantation, Annie Palmer. H.G Delisser had been an activist in the Jamaica Imperial Society and had served as the editor of the Daily Gleaner newspaper of Jamaica. His family owned large parcels of land in the parishes of St James, Trelawney and Hanover. The continuities from the period of slavery was most manifest in the fact that Harold Delisser had been named the first managing director of this plantation turned hotel which was to grow with a 18 hole Golf course across the road from the Hotel.

Opposition to the planter class by the poor and oppressed  had taken many forms and it was from this part of Jamaica that nationalism had taken a consistent and clear form of independent working people’s organization. Major working class rebellions had broken out in the early part of the twentieth century. One worker, Allan George St. Claver Coombs was the founder of the Jamaican Workmen and Trades Union (JWTU) and had been a leading figure in the 1938 opposition to colonialism at Frome in Jamaica. (Frome sugar estate was the scene of a major working class rebellion in Jamaica in 1938) Alexander Bustamante had moved in on this elementary formation and with his contacts formed the Bustamante Industrial Trade Union (BITU). After Coombs was sidelined by Bustamante, Coombs and his followers joined with the Peoples National Party (PNP), then led by the cousin of Bustamante, Norman Manley. However, on the eve of independence in 1961, the PNP leadership decided the Coombs was too unlettered for the Drumblair set and moved to remove him from the leadership of Western Jamaica. Coombs took E.B.L Tomlinson and other supporters with him and so on the eve of independence, the PNP lost Western Jamaica to the Jamaican Labor Party (JLP). It was this JLP anchored with elements such as Kerr Jarrett and Edward Seaga that went about the planning for the redevelopment of the area around Coral Gardens for this to become a major tourist resort.

The Brethren
Montego Bay and its environs were dominated by small farmers who spent half of their time as workers in factories or as seasonal workers in the United States. One such small famer was Rudolph Franklyn who joined the movement of the Rastafari. Franklyn was from Maroon Town and he slowly relocated to the areas around Flower Hill and Salt Spring, just overlooking the Half-Moon Resort. My cousin Clarissa (to whom I dedicated the book Rasta and Resistance) was one of the females in the group who had hailed from Springfield. Rastas from Springfield, Maroon Town, Johns Hall and other rural areas had been joining the growing ranks of workers in Montego Bay after 1950.

Franklyn was continuously harassed by the police in a climate of hostility that had been contrived by Kerr- Jarrett, Walter Fletcher, the Delissers and the colonial forces. For the owners of the new and expanding properties, the presence of the Rastas had been a disincentive for investors. Numerous calls were being made for barriers to the movement of the Rastafari in the Coral Gardens area. The ambitious ‘developers’ aspired to prevent ‘undesirables’ from walking through private property. By 1962 Franklyn had mobilized other small farmers who had been moving to become part of the Rastafari movement. One way of coercing the Rastafari was through the Dangerous Drugs law and 
Franklyn had been arrested for possession of ganja. This author lived in an area of Upper King Street in Montego Bay where many of the brethren and sistren passed through. Mr. Mac was one of the movers in this group of Rastafari and in his yard at 16 upper King street was a staging area where many passed through. There was a thriving carpenter’s shop that employed some of the brethren. The working class areas of Montego Bay, Railway Lane and Barnett Lane were other spaces for the growth of the Rastafari. Every Sunday evening they would gather at the Charles Square (later named Sam Sharpe Square) beating their drums and singing songs of freedom and emancipation. With the growth of this movement, Francis Kerr Jarrett had attempted to coopt one section by exposing them to the ideas and literature of the Moral Rearmament Movement. One of the brethren, Aubrey Brown from the Orange Street area was even sent to the annual conference of the MRA at Mackinac Island, Michigan in the USA so that he could be recruited by the Kerr Jarrett forces. This created deep divisions within the movement.

This author was familiar with one of the followers of Rudolph Franklyn, Felix Waldron. Felix had been one of the brightest youngsters at the Montego Bay Boys School. He had been a promising mathematician and had been awarded a scholarship to study at the local high school, Cornwall College. As one hailing from the working class, Waldron’s parents could not afford to send him to Cornwall and so it was the Montego Bay Boys Club then supported by Charles Agate that looked out for the welfare of this promising mathematician. Waldron was supposed to follow the footsteps of other poor youths such as Rex Nettleford and Danny Miller who had been assisted by Charles Agate and Dr. Herbert Morrison. On the special board of Montego Bay Boys School mentioning those who had gone to Cornwall College, the name of Felix Waldron was prominent after names such as Rex Nettleford.

Felix Waldron had to leave Cornwall College and future research will shed light on the conditions that interrupted his schooling. This author knew Felix well, and would see Felix walking with Franklyn and others passing Upper king Street walking on the way to Salt Spring. It is now known that Franklyn was seeking to do small farming in the area around Flower Hill and Salt Spring.  For the tourist developers, the sight of Waldron, the Bowen brothers and Franklyn and other brethren walking along the road across from Half-Moon was offensive. I know that they often traversed that area because my oldest brother was the ’juiceman’ for the caddies and often sold juices  to Franklyn and his brethren as they passed the area of the Golf Course opposite the new Resort Hotel. For the Jamaican state, these beaded men walking with sticks and cutlasses should not be in areas of tourism so there was constant harassment from the police.

The understanding of this writer was that there had been altercations over freedom of movement. Independence was supposed to give all Jamaicans: freedom of speech, freedom of worship, freedom of movement and the right to a decent life. All of these freedoms had been denied to the Rastafari with constant harassment. After the 1960 uprisings with the Henry brothers this harassment had increased. The British military had been brought to Jamaica to put down the rebellion of small group that had launched armed struggles for independence. Coming one year after the Cuban revolution, the British colonialists were nervous about the possible spark of revolution in the English Speaking Caribbean.

Coral Gardens 1963
In speaking to my brothers and colleagues, one of the features that had not been clear was the forms of recruitment of Rudolph Franklyn. He had been persuasive enough to have a number of younger Rastas in his group of Rastafari. Mr Mac from Upper King Street, Aubrey Brown (Beda brown) Rudolph Franklyn and others had emerged as community leaders and had been under surveillance by the Special Branch (Special Intelligence Unit of the Police Forces). The 16 Upper King St space (Mr Mac) was one area where they passed through regularly and was thus under surveillance. In this group were the brothers Carlton and  Noel Bowen and others such as Clinton Larman  There had been Rastafari formation at Railway Lane and others in an area that was rapidly growing at 12 and a half Upper King Street that was called Gulley or Canterbury. The Rastafari always travelled on foot from Railway Lane and Barnet Street up to Salt Spring and through Flower Hill and sometimes walked to Flanker and White House (a fishing community now blocked by the Sangster airport). These Rastafarians were criminalized for walking along this road that was being planned for tourists and the Jamaican government sought to make this area a no go area for the Rastafarians.

Hence, there had been confrontations between the police and this small group of Rastafarians. Detective Corporal Melbourne who lost his life in the altercation on April 11 had been one of the most energetic enforcer of the ideas of Francis Kerr Jarrett that the free movement of the Rastafari should be discouraged. The altercations between the police and this band of brethren had been so consistent that they decided to make bows and arrows to defend themselves.

On Thursday April 11, 1963 eight months after independence the Rastafarians claimed their right to walk in this tourist region and sought to defend themselves. In the process the Petrol station was torched, Melbourne was killed in the confrontation. Sir Alexander Bustamante – flew to Montego Bay, accompanied by the Commissioner of Police, the top command of the Jamaica Defense Force, the Security Chief, two Ministers of Government, and several police from the headquarters in Kingston.

Bustamante was about to demonstrate to the local and foreign ‘developers’ that this space around half Moon Bay Hotel would be free from the presence of bearded Rastas. A police manhunt rounded up and killed the other members of the group prior to unleashing total repression against all of the Rastafari in Western Jamaica. One police officer has written for the Jamaican elite his version of the confrontation and this book now serves to distort the climate of hostility that had been bred by the white planter class against the Jamaican small farmers who had turned to the ideas and philosophy of peace and love. These Rastafari had been provoked, harassed and they sought to defend themselves and for this they were shot down

The aftermath
Thursday April 11, 1963 was Holy Thursday. This was the day of the funeral of my sister. In the evening we began to hear the news that Ken Douglas petrol station had been burnt and that a number of brethren had been killed. The next day one saw massive army and police presence all around Montego Bay. I remember this vividly because it was Good Friday on April 12 when the police was rounding up every one with locks and beard. The then Prime Minister, Alexander Bustamante, who had been mostly disengaged from Politics, gave the order “Bring in all Rastas, dead or alive.” 

Canterbury was raided and the spaces of the Rastafari ransacked and desecrated. The visible police presence in the working class communities of Western Jamaica demonstrated that the clampdown was not only against the Rastafari but against all sections of the working peoples in Western Jamaica
The police and army eagerly invaded all working class neighborhoods and arrested and detained all those who were Rastas. The lock up jail at Barnett Street was so full that they were held in the yard just as the enslaved had been and from time to time hosed down with water. The police and military raided all camps and then proceeded to cut the locks of the Rastafari in all parts of Western Jamaica.

Increased support for Rastafari
This wave of repression marked a turning point in the History of Jamaica. Sympathy and support for the Rastafari grew. Hundreds and thousands of youths identified with Franklyn and Waldron and the rights of freedom of Movement. In Montego Bay, poor youth such as Billy Griffiths then sought other outlets such as soccer to realize their skills and potential. Billy Griffiths yesterday, USANi Bolt today, youths looked to sports and music as outlets for their energies. The state embarked on a three pronged approach to coerce and control the growth of the Rastafari movement. There was the police and military rampage. This rampage was egged on by the media and the local outlets that wanted to declare to the world that Jamaica was safe for tourists. This media campaign from the Gleaner and the radio was the second line of attack. The third area of control was through sociologists and social scientists that were deployed to understand the relationship between ‘violence and poverty.’

With the growth of the movement, Edward Seaga embarked on a campaign to co-opt the symbols and ideas of the Rastafari, firstly by bringing back the remains of Marcus Garvey and then by inviting Haile Selassie to Jamaica in 1966. Seaga understood the potentialities of the Rastafari and in Kingston he moved to bulldoze the Rastafari settlements of Back o Wall to create the garrison community of Tivoli Gardens.

Neither of the two mainstream political parties could grasp the full depth of the ideation plane of the Jamaican poor. Walter Rodney grounded with sections of the Rastas in 1968 and the fusion of his ideas of African dignity along with the ideas of Rastas again exploded. Rodney was expelled and banned from Jamaica. After Walter Rodney, the Rastafari movement expanded primarily through the ideas communicated through Reggae music.  Many middle class elements who did not understand the deep roots of the movement gravitated to the superstructural elements such as the locks and the smoking without understanding the roots. The current deputy Prime Minister of Jamaica was one such middle class element who had joined the movement, temporarily, before he became one of the leaders of the PNP.

The Heritage of Coral gardens
Fifty years after Coral gardens, the Jamaican society is segregated with the alliance between the old planter elements cemented with the two mainstream political parties. These two parties mobilized sections of the working poor with crumbs and weapons to the point where the militarization of working class communities makes life unbearable. The introduction of crack cocaine has completed the picture of control.

Rose Hall, Ironshore and the areas next to the airport are now bustling tourist centers while up in the hills of Flanker there has been unprecedented gun violence. Upper King Street and Green Pond have seen crack cocaine invasions. In 2010, the massive killings of poor workers at Tivoli Gardens brought out to the world the inner story of drug dons, politicians and the neo-liberal world of finance. In 2012, two murders of close colleagues brought home the insecurity of all. The first was that of Clover Graham. Clover had been an activist in the Black Community in Britain and had returned to Jamaica in 1990. . She worked at the legal aid clinic of the Norman Manley Law School in Kingston; lectured at the University of Technology on land law, a critical aspect of a young country’s development; and worked with the UNHCR. In 2007 her son, Taiwo, was murdered in St Andrew, Jamaica. She herself was murdered in August 2012.

The other was Barrington Dixon. Barry Dixon had attended Cornwall College and was in his final years at the moment of the uprisings at Coral Gardens. Barry Dixon was trained as an Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at the University of the West Indies. Barry Dixon was killed I his home in September 2012.

The death of Felix Waldron in 1963 and that of Barry Dixon fifty years later sealed the condition of the Jamaican people. Both had been brilliant students at Cornwall College. Only new forms of politics and community could break the recursive processes that had been set in motion by the planter class.

Fifty years after the uprisings of 1963 a new form of politics is being demanded to transform Jamaica. The members of the middle class who had gestured to the Left in the seventies and eighties have now joined the political class as entrepreneurs, politicians or commentators. A small group of dedicated Rastafari continues to carry forward the messages of peace, truth and love as a holding operation until new forces emerge to fully overthrow the Babylonian system.